Saturday, December 26, 2015

My Christmas Wish

If any day of the year is appropriate for making wishes, it has to be Christmas.  While the year has been pretty good for me, there is still an unmet wish:  I long for politicians who simply do not exist: guiltless innocents who would be as incorruptible as the family dog.  With all the reality television shows currently masquerading as debates, this wish has become an obsession.

Frequently, I discuss this with Professor Grumbles (my dear friend, the German professor, whose formative economic training suffers from a surplus of Frank Capra movies).  He steadfastly believes that all business owners are Mr. Potter--without a single George Bailey to keep them in check.  Obviously, he has watched It's a Wonderful Life and believed it to be a documentary.

I, on the other hand, am just as guilty as he:   In my case, the Capra movie is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a movie about a common, honest man who becomes a United States Senator.   I love the movie, and measure every politician against Jefferson Smith--a practice that, in our current political climate, is rather like using a yardstick to measure fleas.

This is not a documentary about the workings of Congress, but a very simple movie about an ordinary American.  The senator's home state is never mentioned and there is no mention of the Great Depression, Hitler's Europe, or even the Democrat or Republican Parties.  This is not a movie about politics, but a movie about an everyday man who stands up for right; it is a story about a man who is a hero in the face of overwhelming pressure.  (There are a few hints available to us, however:  The original title of the unpublished story was "The Gentleman from Montana" and the movie makes it clear that the junior senator is a member of the minority party, which in 1939 would have been the Republican Party, which was the party of both Capra and Stewart.)

As in every good Capra movie, there is a simple visual clue that will aid you in understanding the movie.  Simply look at how tall Mr. Smith is in any given frame.  Played by Jimmy Stewart, when Jefferson Smith is an "ordinary man", somehow Stewart's 6'3" frame is folded into a small chair or he is seen at an angle that shows him to be shorter than his costars, despite his actually being almost a foot taller than most of them.  This is Mr. Smith as the innocent common man.

But, when Jefferson Smith rises to meet his challenges, he quite literally stands tall.  No longer a clumsy, awkward child who has landed amidst troubles he cannot challenge, Mr. Smith towers over corrupt politicians.  I tear up every time I watch the movie. 

Strangely, this now-classic and beloved movie did not have a promising start.  When produced, the film was hated in Hollywood and some even thought that Frank Capra was pushing a pro-communist movie.  The premier was held in Washington, with almost half the senate in attendance, and Capra recorded in his autobiography that the audience booed and jeered...and over a thousand people left the theater before the movie was over.  Even the senator who had been invited to share Capra’s box was angry.

The Washington Press Corps, who had invited Capra to premiere the movie in the capitol, despised the movie.  Facing a new rival in influencing the public, journalism feared what Capra termed “film power”.  The director was cornered in a booth at the Washington Press Club by an angry newspaper editor who, clutching a martini loudly proclaimed: “There isn’t one Washington correspondent in this room that drinks on duty, or off duty!”

The Senate Majority Leader, Alben W. Barkley called the film "silly and stupid", and claimed it "makes the Senate look like a bunch of crooks."  Congress, angry that the movie portrayed them as a collection of fools, struck back at Hollywood by passing bills that eventually led to the breakup of the studio-owned theater chains. 

Joe Kennedy, our ambassador to England—and the father of a future president—wrote both the studio and Capra that the movie would damage American prestige in Europe during the early days of World War II.   He called the film “one of the most disgraceful things I have ever seen done to our country.”

Senator James Byrnes called the picture “outrageous…exactly the kind of picture that dictators of totalitarian governments would like to have their subjects believe exists in democracy….”

Actually, just the opposite was true.  Franco banned the movie in Spain, Hitler prohibited it in Germany, and Mussolini banned it in Italy.  It is understandable when virulently anti-communist fascist regimes ban a supposedly pro-communist movie, but this doesn't explain why Stalin banned the movie in the Soviet Union.

Despite the opposition, the movie was shown.  Some countries changed the dialog when they dubbed the movie into the local language so that the movie's message could be altered to conform to the local official ideology.  And when occupied France was given one month to stop showing American movie by the Nazis, many theaters picked Mr. Smith as the last Hollywood movie to show before the ban took effect.  One theater in Paris showed the movie every day for 30 days. 

It did not take long for the movie's detractors to change their mind.  The movie was nominated for 11 Academy Awards.  (The film only won one of the awards—for best story—but 1939 was an exceptional year for movies.  Among the competition were The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Fantasia, and Stagecoach.).  In 1989, the Library of Congress added the movie to the United States National Film Registry, for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

When it comes to politics, the movie has ruined me.  Capra sucked me in, and even today, I believe in the difference that one man can make.  I believe in those ideals, if for no other reason that those ideals are the things worth believing in.  And it makes it damn hard to watch what we call politics today.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

No Trigger Warning Required

Dateline Cairo. After a public cabinet meeting today, the Egyptian Minister of Public Works, Mahmud Nomeh, announced that work would begin to dismantle the Great Pyramid of Giza, the long-standing symbol of slavery and oppression.

The pyramid, which was built some 4,500 years ago and stands just outside the city of Cairo, has been a target of demonstrations by thousands of unemployed archaeology students. Demonstrators have been demanding changes since the overthrow of the Mubarak government in 2011.  While the Mubarak government supported the Antiquities Department (and the tourist dollars it generated), under the present regime, tourism has all but stopped in the desert nation.

"The time surely comes when Justice must and will be heard," Director Nomeh told the press as he announced the monuments removal. "People of Egypt, that day is today. The Pharaohs, you see, were on the wrong side of history and humanity."

The decision did not come lightly:  it followed months of public shouting matches, penned op-eds and rhetorical firefights on social media that enveloped Nomeh’s request in June that the pyramid be discarded as a vestige of Cairo’s racist past.  Nomeh, who is widely believed to have future political plans, has been the most vocal in leading a movement to clean up the country’s troubled history.

"We, the people of Cairo, have the power and we have the right to correct these historical wrongs," Nomeh said following the meeting.  “The people of today’s Egypt have a right to a living history, to an organic history that evolves to meet the needs of a present generation--one that is not fixed in stone and that is not an insult to the daily lives of every working Egyptian today.”

The demolition of the pyramid is expected to take 23 years, with completion scheduled for the fall of 2039.  “We plan,” explained Nomeh, “to do the work in stages.  Each year, during the time the agricultural season is over, we will employ as many as 30,000 people to work in dismantling this affront to the people of Egypt.”

Egypt is suffering from a chronic unemployment problem.  While the overall unemployment hovers around 13% per year, for the youth of Egypt (those workers under the age of 29), unemployment is 26%, with over half of the nation’s youth living below the poverty line.  This seasonal employment, of roughly six months a year, would coincide with the time it is most difficult for unemployed workers to find new jobs.

If successful, this program of deconstruction could solve the chronic unemployment problem.  Nomeh explained, “In total, there are over 100 pyramids in this country, each a symbol of oppression and racism.  Each of these is an affront to the sensibilities of people descended from those slaves.”

In all, over 6,000,000 tons of stones would have to be moved from the thirteen acre site to an abandoned quarry at Tura, located just outside the present-day city of Cairo.  It has been estimated that slightly more than 2.3 million blocks would have to be shifted.  Due to a shortage of heavy machinery, much of the work will have to be done by hand.

The decision to demolish the Great Pyramid of Giza has been met with some opposition.   It was an emotional meeting, often interrupted by heckling, and infused with references to slavery, lynching, and racism, as well as with the pleas of those who opposed removing the pyramid to not "rewrite history."

Nomeh summed up the tug-of-war that has spanned the last few months of debate, saying that most of the opposition seemed to believe that now was not the right time to be debating monuments.

"We can argue that the timing was not good, but when would it ever be?  Let us do it now for our children, and our children's children," he said.

Leading a vocal minority that called for retaining the last surviving monument from the original Seven Wonders of the World, the former Director of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, proclaimed, “The people who built the pyramids were not slaves, they were paid wages for their work.”

This claim was dismissed by those who said, “While the workers might have been paid wages, the pay was insufficient and cooperation was forced, effectively making them wage slaves.”

Nomeh called the vote a symbolic severing of an "umbilical cord" tying the city to the offensive “legacy of the Pharaohs and the era blasphemy to Allah.”

Note.  None of this is true, of course.  (Well, almost none of it, anyway). Few of the statements in quotes above are actually my own writing--most of them were lifted verbatim from press reports discussing the planned removal of Confederate statues from New Orleans, and a few nouns were changed.  For example, statue became "pyramid", God became "Allah", and Louisiana became "Egypt".   The photo of the meeting shows Mayor Landrieu (who has announced plans to run for the Senate), following the meeting that voted to spend millions of dollars to remove statues from a city that has not yet repaired all the schools damaged by Hurricane Katrina.  Most of the facts concerning the pyramid are true, but Mahmud Hemon (Nomeh) was the architect who built the pyramid, not tore it down.
Horrifyingly, the passage about a 'living, organic history' that evolves to fit the needs of present day people was taken verbatim from a televised press conference.   If this sounds reasonable to you, consider driving across Los Angeles during the rush hour while traffic laws evolve to fit the needs of the drivers who honk their horns the loudest.
Sadly, the statistics for unemployment in Egypt are factual, and by a rather strange coincidence, are also fairly accurate for Black men in New Orleans.  Perhaps that should be Mayor Landrieu’s first priority.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The American Princess

Some people have an absurdly improbably life, and Agnes was certainly one of those.  In her lifetime, she was internationally famous, but today, surprisingly few even remember her.  The exact details of her life are almost impossible to discover, as she seems to have helped spread some of the countless rumors that surrounded her during her lifetime.  And despite autobiographies from both Agnes and her husband still existing, there remain more questions than answers about her life.

Despite many photos, there is even confusion about her actual appearance.  Seemingly reliable reports list her as both short and tall, and her hair was either black, red, blond, or prematurely white.  (From the photographs, I think we can eliminate the prematurely white.)

Though she—and her husband—were born on Christmas Day, the exact year is a little uncertain.  In her autobiography, she claimed that it was 1846, but it’s possible that she was born as early as 1840.

Nor do we know much about her early years.  In Europe, it was widely reported that she was of “Indian descent” while in America, she was thought to have been fathered by a European ambassador visiting America.  She always denied the rumors that she had once worked in a circus as a bareback rider and tightrope walker, or that she had been a stage actress in Havana, but certain passages in her autobiography confirm those stories.  It is certain that she lived in Havana for a few years before returning to the United States, but we may never know what she did there.
By the start of the American Civil War, the details of her life begin to come into focus.  Agnes Elizabeth Winona Leclercq Joy moved to Washington, DC in 1861.  In the early days of the Civil War, the capitol was an exciting place to be, and Agnes was one of thousands of people who flocked to excitement of a city embroiled in war.  Several young society ladies amused themselves in the endless parties and balls held by the torrent of Army officers gathering before actual battle commenced.

One of these officers, Colonel Felix Constantin Alexander Johann Nepomuk, the Prince of Salm-Salm, was immediately attracted to the short, tall, redheaded, blonde who could sit a horse amazingly well.  The Habsburg prince was the younger brother of the reigning Prince of Salm-Salm, a small principality along the Rhine.  Since Felix was not going to inherit either the throne or the family fortune, he spent his entire life fighting in various wars.  Though only 33 years old, he had already fought in two wars in both the Austrian and Prussian Armies.
Although Agnes and Felix did not yet have a common language between them, they fell in love and were quickly married.  As Agnes later wrote, “We did most of our communicating with our eyes, a language we both spoke fluently.” 

The newly minted Prinzessin zu Salm-Salm insisted on following her husband to the front, where, despite not having any medical training, she was quite active in caring for the injured soldiers.  And since the medical wing of the Army was chronically short of supplies, the princess remedied this problem by simply stealing from the supply trains of the officers.  Evidently, you can get away with this if you are a lovely princess and the wife of a colonel.

Well....almost get away with it.  At one point, the controversy about stolen supplies became something of a scandal that reached the White House.  President Lincoln personally mediated the solution, and in the process, pinned captain's bars onto the gown of the princess.  The legality of this promotion is a little murky, but very few people argue with either a princess or a president.

One person who could argue with President Lincoln, however, was Mary Todd Lincoln.  When the press reported that the “Captain” had kissed the President on both cheeks and the lips, several Washington sources reported loud public arguments within the White House about the incident.  In her autobiography, the princess reports that the incident was true, and she had kissed the somewhat surprised president in order to win a bet with the wives of other officers.

When the war was over, the newly breveted General Salm-Salm and his wife volunteered their services to Emperor Maximilian in Mexico.  Not only was the Emperor a distant cousin, but there was a fresh war between the troops of ousted Mexican President Juarez and the French backed army of Maximillian.  And Maximillian was interested in attracting former Union officers from America—he already had a lot of former Confederate officers seeking employment--hoping that their presence might dissuade the United States from offering support to President Juarez.

Napoleon III had invaded Mexico during the American Civil War and had installed the Habsburg prince and younger brother of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, as a puppet emperor despite this being a violation of the American Monroe Doctrine which stated that European powers could no longer seek new territorial gains in the New World.  This act was a clear violation of the doctrine, but in America, Americans were a little too busy killing other Americans to do much about it.  But by the fall of 1865, the Civil War was over, and the United States moved 50,000 troops to the Mexican border as a reminder to Napoleon that it was time to pull his troops—and Maximillian—out of Mexico.

The French troops did leave and Maximillian almost went with them, but Maximillian’s mother was the Princess Sophie of Bavaria.  She wrote her beloved son, telling him to remember that he was a Habsburg and that 'Habsburgs never run'.  This was the same thing her grandson Archduke Franz Ferdinand said when advised not to venture out in an open automobile in Sarajevo one day in 1914.  Since his assassination touched off World War I, one is forced to conclude that Princess Sophie was correct—Habsburgs may not run, but they are frequently carried.  (There is a persistent rumor that Sophie had actually fathered Maximillian with her close personal friend Napoleon II--if this is true, then Max certainly did not inherit any of his grandfather’s military skills.  It would also mean that it was Napoleon IV who sent Napoleon III to Mexico, but that would require a hell of a lot of history books to be rewritten.)
The Prince rose through the ranks of the Imperial Mexican Army rapidly, so that by the time he was captured along with Emperor Maximillian, he was a Colonel in command of cavalry troops.  Imprisoned in a convent, the Princess worked tirelessly to get the lives of the Emperor and her husband spared.  She sent telegrams around the world, garnering international support for clemency for Maximillian.  She also personally met with Mexican generals, ambassadors, and, eventually, with President Juarez himself. 

Pleading for the emperor’s life on her knees, the answer from Juarez left no doubt.  “I’m sorry Madame to see you on your knees before me; but even if all the queens and kings of Europe were in your place, I still wouldn’t be able to save his life. I’m not the one who takes it, it’s the people that rule his life and mine.”   A painting of this scene by Manuel Ocaranza is still popular in Mexico.
Since a pardon was impossible, the American Princess began planning an escape.  If enough money could be raised, the officers of the Mexican Army—many of which were deserters from the French Army—could be bribed.  The Emperor and her husband could potentially flee to Veracruz, which was still in the hands of the Emperor’s army.  The Elizabeth, an Austrian warship, could return them to Europe…but all these plans quickly fell apart when Emperor Maximillian simply would not cooperate.  Habsburg to the end, when he was finally ready to escape, he demanded that a proper royal retinue accompany him.  In all, he thought that an escape party could be no fewer than six people...And the escapees would have to be provisioned with wine, chocolate, swords, riding whips, and suitable horses.  Perhaps the strangest requirement of all was that he refused to cut off his distinctive blond beard, lest that anyone should discover that the emperor had a weak chin.

Some historians have suggested that the famous insanity of Carlota, Maximillian’s mad wife, was a symptom of tertiary syphilis, a disease she caught from her husband.  It is quite possible that Max, too, was beginning to go a little mad.
Maximillian was executed by firing squad June 19, 1867.  Before he died, he bestowed upon the princess the title Lady of Honour of the San Carlos Order and promoted the prince to the rank of general and bestowed the title of the Order of the Guadalup.  Since these royal titles were only significant in the royal court of Emperor Maximillian and President Juarez was executing all the Imperial officers with the rank of general, these were dubious honors.  Still, it’s the thought that counts, right?

While the Princess was unsuccessful at arranging the sparing of Max's life, she was able to get President Juarez to commute the Prince's death sentence to life imprisonment, then to allow an early release in exchange for a vow never to return to Mexico.
The Prince and Princess returned to Europe where their efforts on behalf of Maximillian made them the darlings of the Austrian Court.  And--luckily for the Prince--the Franco-Prussian War was just starting and he was quickly made a Major in the Prussian army, serving with the grenadier guards.  The Princess, once again, accompanied her husband to the front where she served with the medical staff.  For her efforts, she was awarded the Cross of Merit for Women and Girls.  (She was denied the Iron Cross as the award had never been given to a woman.)

In August, 1870, the Prince was killed during the Battle of Gravelotte while leading his men into battle.  Though shot in the right shoulder, he transferred his sword to his left hand and continued to lead his men until shot twice more.  While it is probably impossible to count all the battles he had participated in, this was his fifth war.

Widowed at the age of only 25, the Prinzessin zu Salm-Salm retained her title the rest of her life.  Working tirelessly to raise money for military hospitals, the organization she worked with eventually became known as the Red Cross.

Born an American, she traveled the world, earned the rank of Captain in the American Army, participated in three wars, and knew the crowned heads of state across Europe (and in Mexico).  She was an American-born royal princess almost a century before Grace Kelly (and led a much more adventuresome life than that famous princess), yet almost no one has heard of her.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Billion Dollar Doodle

He was something of a wanderer and a dreamer—a romantic who was better suited as a student than as the engineer his family hoped he would be.  Sickly and weak most of his life, he was nevertheless an adventurous soul who could never be still for long.

While his father wanted him to study engineering, he wanted to study theater, literaturealmost anything except engineering.  Finally, in something of a plea bargain, he settled on law.  When he was admitted to the bar, his father was happy, but he never actually began a legal career, instead beginning a lifelong habit of traveling the world.

It was during a trip through Europe that our dreamer first started to write a series of stories for a London magazine.  Before long, he had published an impressive number of travel articles.

It was while traveling through Belgium and France by canoe, that he met an American woman and despite her being more than ten years his senior and married with two small children—they quickly fell in love.  Fanny promised to return to California and obtain a divorce from her philandering husband (from whom she was already separated) so the two could be could be married.

While Fannie returned to America, our dreamer visited Unst Island, part of the Shetland Islands northeast of Scotland.  There he visited Muckle Flugga (No, I’m making this shit up—this is a true story—give or take a lie or two.) where his father and uncle were building the lighthouse that still stands there.  (Actually, building lighthouses was the family business: they were engineering pharologists.  The term comes from the Lighthouse of Pharo, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World.)

When he received word that Fanny had indeed obtained a divorce, he took passage to New York and after an extensive train journey, joined his fiancée in San Fernando, California.  The two were quickly married, but within a short time his health collapsed due to consumption (tuberculosis).

Strangely, his imagination seemed to soar when he was ill, and for the rest of his life, his best works would be done while he was ill.

One night, his twelve-year-old stepson drew a rough map of an island, no doubt inspired by the stories his stepfather had related about Unst Island.  The imaginary island even looked a little like Unst Island if you shut your good eye and squinted at it while drinking rum.  (It also helps if there is a parrot on your shoulder.)

The boy loved the game as his stepfather began inking onto the map exotic place names and imaginative features and before long, he was demanding stories to go along with the map.  Since this was just a game, the stepfather “borrowed” details from both fiction and history, mixed well with double doses of fun and fantasy.

Before long, the map had evolved into an imaginative tale of pirates and buried treasure—and for the first time ever, the pirates had left behind a treasure map on which `X` marked the spot where the chest full of pieces of eight were buried.  (There is no record of any pirate's ever doing anything remotely like this in real life.  Ask yourself, if you had buried a fortune in gold and silver, would you really need a map to find it again?)

His son liked the stories so much that he decided to write them down.  Writing as much as a chapter a night, the stories began appearing in a weekly magazine for children, “Young Folks.”  Titled “The Sea Cook: Treasure Island or the Mutiny of the Hispaniola”, the stories were all but ignored, perhaps for the simple reason that no child in history has ever referred to himself as a “young folk.”  (I strongly suspect that the magazine had a paid subscription list close to zero).

The next year, 1883, Robert Louis Stevenson republished the stories in a book, with a simplified title, Treasure Island.  Since then, the book has never been out of print, has become one of the most widely translated books in literary history, and has been made into more than fifty movies or television shows.  And, of course, the book has spawned an entire industry of imitators and spinoffs from Captain Jack Sparrow to Peter Pan’s Captain Hook.   (In one of the Peter Pan books the author, J. M. Barrie, states that the only man who ever frightened Long John Silver was Captain Hook.)

Sadly, when Stevenson began turning the individual stories into a book, he discovered that the original multi-color drawing of the island—the doodle that had created a billion dollar industry—had vanished.  The map that appears in the book is a recreation and if the original, now quite literally a treasure map, could be located, it would be worth a pirate’s treasure.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Victory Victoria

In 1759, the British began construction of a new flagship, the HMS Victory, a 100-gun, three-decker, ship of the line.  In the 18th century, this was the nautical equivalent of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and only the most powerful countries could even contemplate the construction of such a ship.

This ship was the most complicated man-made object in the Eighteenth Century world.  Using 6000 trees, 26 miles of rope, and enough sail to cover a football field, she was also the deadliest war machine in the entire world.  From within the wooden walls crewed by iron men, her cannons could loft a ton and a half of iron shot several miles.

The ship was 45 years old when Lord Horatio Nelson used her as his flagship to destroy the combined navies of both France and Spain.  Such ships and such leaders made England's the largest and most powerful navy in the world.

Not only was that navy large, it was damn good.  In several wars and countless battles, the British Navy had humiliated the navies of France, Spain, Denmark, Turkey, Algeria, Russia, and Holland.  During the period from 1792-1812, the ships of His Majesty’s navy had fought in over 200 engagements and had won all but five battles.  (And all of those losses were in single ship-to-ship battles—none of them more recent than seven years earlier.)

The inevitable consequence of this incredible string of victories was that an English victory was expected by not only the English, but by the captains and crews of the ships the British fought.  With this attitude, it will not be a surprise when I tell you that no fewer than 170 of the nearly 900 ships that made up the British Navy in 1812 had been captured from other countries during combat. 

But then Napoleon was defeated and peace turned out to be far more difficult for the island maritime power than war.  Ships rotted, experienced naval personnel were put ashore on half-pay, and the general overall condition of the navy declined as a sense of complacency settled over its officers.  Only occasionally did the Admiralty’s office kick into high gear and actually do something (usually after the London newspapers published an editorial about how recent French naval developments put the Empire at risk).  The HMS Victoria is one such example.

In 1859, England launched a new flagship, the HMS Victoria.  She was almost immediately a floating example of the British admiralty’s knee-jerk reaction to all things French.

The French had just built a 130-gun three-decker, the Bretagne, that was designed to be the biggest, baddest warship afloat.  Halfway through the construction, someone noticed that the age of sail—while not dead—was certainly dying.  Even though the hull was already laid down, the builders managed to shoe-horn a steam engine into the frame, making it into an ungainly ship that was so impractical to sail that, within a decade, the French turned it into floating barracks. 

The Bretagne was horribly impractical, but it was bigger than any ship the British had, so the Brits immediately began construction of an even bigger version, with even more firepower.  And deep within her was the very reason why the ship should not have been built in the first place. 

The largest wooden-hulled warship ever built, the HMS Victoria would have twice the tonnage of the Victory, and her massive guns could fire both red-hot shot and explosive shells that could penetrate wood-hulled vessels and then explode.  As a result, the days of the giant three-deckers were already over even before this dinosaur was launched.

While the Bretagne saw brief action in the Crimean War, neither ship had a very long or distinguished career, and by the middle of the 1860’s, both ships were decommissioned and never sailed again.  By the end of the century, both ships had been scrapped. 

A few decades later, the British launched a new HMS Victoria—a new battleship launched in time to celebrate the aging queen’s Golden Jubilee.  Once again, the Victoria was the most powerful ironclad afloat, with the largest guns and the thickest armor, and—as the first British ship to use a steam turbine—one of the fastest warships afloat.

Posted to the Mediterranean Fleet, the Victorianicknamed The Slipper for the habit of the foredeck to slip under waves due to the weight of the heavy bow guns—was put under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon.  Tryon, was a fanatic about Lord Horatio Nelson, both studying the man and personally purchasing the famous Nelson sword (a copy of which can be seen in Trafalgar Square in London).

While Tryon honored Nelson, he was, unfortunately, nothing like the man.  Nelson was famous for drilling his subordinate ship captains in using their own initiative.  He called these men his ‘Band of Brothers’—a line taken from Shakespeare’s Henry V.  Tryon, in contrast, was a dictatorial tyrant who expected instant obedience from his subordinates.

By the late 19th century, fleets maneuvered in two long parallel lines to facilitate faster communication by flags.  This gave Admiral Tryon an idea for an efficient (and showy) method of bringing the entire fleet to stop at an anchorage at once.  The lead vessels of both lines of ships would begin a simultaneous turn towards the other line.  As the following ships reached the same point in the line, they, too, would execute the turn.  When the entire fleet had reversed direction, all the ships would simultaneously execute a ninety degree turn away from the opposing line, come to a stop, and lower their anchors.  Ten ships dropping anchor at exactly the same time would be an imposing sight. 

Tryon issued his orders very carefully.  When the Victoria raised her orders by flag, each of the other nine battleships in the fleet was to repeat the orders on its flags, helping to communicate with the rest of the fleet and at the same time, indicating that it was standing by to execute the order.

Leading the other line of ships was the HMS Camperdown, under the command of Vice Admiral Markham, Tryon’s second in command.  He had already expressed an opinion that this maneuver should not be attempted unless the two lines of ships were at least 1600 yards apart.  On June 22, 1893, off the coast of Libya, Admiral Tryon decided to attempt his showy maneuver—at the time, however, the two lines were only 1200 yards apart.

Believing the maneuver to be dangerous, Markham did not immediately indicate he was ready to comply, and composed a message to be sent to the Victoria indicating that he thought the two lines were too close to each other, but before the message could be sent, Admiral Tryon sent one to Markham:  "What are you waiting for?"  Markham cancelled his message and complied with Tryon’s order.

The reason for Markham's hesitation was simple:  Each lead ship of the column weighed 10,000 tons, was steaming at nine knots, and had a turning radius of 800 yards.  Ironically, each ship was equipped with a steel ram on the bow; a device that the Admiralty had recently decided was obsolete and no longer useful.

Halfway through the turn, Admiral Tryon could see the disaster that was, by this point, inevitable.  He ordered the engines reversed, but it was too late:  The Camperdown tore deep into the starboard side of the Victoria, then as the two ships continued to swing towards each other, the Camperdown’s ram opened up the side of the Victoria like a can opener, making a hole roughly 100 square feet in area.  (By comparison, the hole that sank the much larger Titanic was only fourteen square feet.)

Almost immediately, the steel ram and the heavy bow guns pulled the bow of the ship down and the Victoria sank in less than ten minutes, killing 358 men (almost exactly half the ship’s compliment).  As the ship sank, Admiral Tryon repeatedly said, “It’s all my fault.”  Of course—as was the custom—the admiral went down with the ship.

After this, the British Navy stopped naming battleships after Queen Victoria.  The HMS Victory is the oldest warship still on the rolls of any nation's navy, although it hasn’t been in a battle since Lord Nelson died during the Battle of Trafalgar.

Four years ago, the wreck of the Victoria was found off the coast of Libya.  After 111 years underwater, she was discovered with her stern some 350 feet underwater.  Miraculously, when the ship sank, her 14,000 hp engines continued to turn the screws, driving the bow of the ship deep into the mud, so that the wreck is standing completely upright—appropriately, like a tombstone.

The diver who discovered the wreck managed to reach Admiral Tryon’s cabin and located Admiral Nelson’s sword, but hid the sword deep inside wreck to prevent future divers from finding it, so it will probably stay there forever. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

GPS: Global Perplexing System

Confession Time:  I love maps.  One of my best friends is a geographer and I am continually amazed at how often we study the same events, but where I properly place these events in a chronological matrix, my friend is overly concerned with location.  He stubbornly resists my efforts to educate him for, as he is wont to say, “Without geography, you’re nowhere.”

We both, however, agree on our love of maps.  My truck is full of maps (I even have maps of places where I have no intention of going).  I’m fairly certain that no one ever got lost because he carried too many maps.  (Except Second Lieutenants--but they are an exception unto themselves.)

My wife, The Doc, however, seems to believe that maps are just a questionable opinion from an unreliable source.   Useful in a sort of an amusing way, but no more reliable than a husband she once saw check a baby’s diaper using the “finger dipstick method”.  Of course, she is wrong about maps.  (And I only did that dipstick thing once!)
In my opinion, most women don’t really understand maps.  While there are probably endless numbers of men who don’t understand maps, either, deep down, I still sort of believe that map reading may be a Y-chromosome-linked ability.  (Sort of like the exclusive male ability to tighten something without the need to mentally recite: “Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey").  And while I have no scientific data, I believe that most women believe that Left and West are synonyms.
It is not that my wife can’t read a map, it’s just the way she gives me the information found there.  As I’m approaching a freeway interchange in Dallas known as the “Mixmaster” is not when I want to hear the words, “I don’t think this map is right...”

This is why I have long lusted for one of those GPS devices you could install in your car that would provide instant and reliable navigation.  Every time I mentioned one, my wife would take this as a personal affront to her intelligence.  While traveling, I once managed to rent a car with such a device, and my wife immediately labeled it untrustworthy and unreliable.  This was the moment I knew for sure, we would never have such a device in our car.
Then, came the iPhone, Google Maps, and Siri.  Suddenly, nearly everybody had a GPS unit.  “Siri,” I can now say confidently.  “Directions to Joe’s Crab Shack.” 
Almost immediately, Siri responds.  “In 2.1 miles, turn left onto North Wilmot Road.  Your destination is on the left.”

This is infinitely better than The Doc suddenly announcing, “Get ready to turn.”
“What?  Which way?  I’m in the middle lane!” I cry as I frantically check all the mirrors.
“Never mind,” The Doc says irritably.  “You missed it.”

The Doc refuses to use Siri, believing that SIRI is an anagram for Somewhere In Rhode Island.  There are currently 31 satellites 12,500 miles straight up, each circling around the earth twice a day, and another three dozen are scheduled to be launched.   Using this technology, even my iPhone can locate me with an incredible accuracy of roughly plus or minus 25 feet.  Siri can now tell me exactly how fast, when, and where I took the wrong turn and got almost lost.
And you can use these tools even when you are not in a car.  Siri is accurate enough for me to have located, just yesterday, my wife inside a MegaStore.   (I didn't even know that store had a curtain rod section.)

Now, every morning, when I start my car, the screen on my iPhone says that traffic is running normal and that it will take me thirteen minutes to drive to work.  Of course, the traffic is always normal in Southern New Mexico and it only takes 8 minutes to drive to work, but this is still amazingly accurate.  And polite.
This is not, however, accurate enough for The Doc.  She steadfastly remains convinced that Siri and GPS are working together to try and kill us.  She claims that Siri has more than once told her to turn off a bridge, take a shortcut through a vacant field, or routed her onto a freeway for a destination only two blocks ahead.  Naturally, I was not present in the car during any of these experiences.

Siri once did tell me to execute an endless series of U-turns to reach a restaurant only three blocks ahead, but that was in Tucson (and the food was so bad that Siri was probably trying to save my life).  And once, while trying to find a grocery store in Alamogordo, she directed me to a store 90 miles away--but once again, Siri was probably just trying to get me out of Alamogordo before the sun went down and the police rolled up the sidewalks.

There is a feature that perhaps should be added to these devices.  A “Wife Mode” would be instructive to single men (God knows we married men don’t need this feature).  After missing a turn, Siri could refuse to provide directions and loudly announce, “If you’re not going to listen to me, you can just find it yourself.”  Or, perhaps, Siri could, on a random basis, ignore where you want to go and direct you straight to The Pottery Barn or Tuesday Morning.
I’m not sure if The Doc and I will live long enough to own a driverless car, but I’m pretty sure that if we do, she will have to wear a blindfold while traveling in it.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Murder Most Fowl

There is a universal military problem:  When the war is over, how do you turn soldiers back into civilians? 

This is a tougher problem than you might think.  Young men, skilled only in violence, do not take kindly to being suddenly unemployed during a post-war recession.  In Latin America, at least historically, this situation usually leads to revolutions.  Julius Caesar solved this problem by creating farms for his former soldiers—as far from Rome as possible—in newly conquered territory.  Perhaps this example is what led Australia inadvertently into a war.
After World War I, Australia had a similar problem with returning servicemen and some bright government official decided that the best solution was to turn former soldiers into farmer soldiers.  Over 5,000 farms were created out of barren land in Western Australia—the sort of land where even lizards normally had to pack a lunch to cross:  lands so harsh that only the ruggedly unusual wildlife of the Australian Outback could survive.  Here, the newly-created farmers were to grow wheat!
The government promised subsidies (which never materialized), a growing market for agricultural products (which promptly crashed with the advent of the Great Depression), and price supports (which the government could not afford to pay).  Things were not working out well even before the drought started….but even that paled in significance to the emu problem.

The Australian Emu, locally known as a yallabiddie, is a large flightless bird that almost defies description.  It looks like the result of a drunken one-night stand between Big Bird and a Velociraptor.  Adults can be six feet tall, weigh 120 pounds, and have powerful legs with amazingly sharp claws.  Migratory packs of them soon moved into newly created farm lands.  Roughly 20,000 birds arrived—a ravenous and implacable enemy army.
Some of the soldier/farmers couldn’t afford fences, not that this really mattered, as the birds pretty quickly destroyed what fences were already there.  And just as quickly, began destroying the wheat fields. 
 
The farmers tried to handle the problem for themselves, they picked up their rifles and shot a few of the birds, but they managed to kill only a handful of the pesky varmints before they ran out of expensive ammunition.  The farmers could have asked for help from the Minister of Agriculture, but being soldiers at heart, instead asked for help from the Minister of Defense.  Specifically, they wanted enough ammunition to wipe out all 20,000 birds, and they wanted machine guns to accomplish the task quickly and efficiently.

Sir George Pearce, the Minister of Defense, quickly agreed.  Not only would this make the government look like it actually cared about the farmers, but Pearce thought it would be good target practice for his men.  He sent Major G.P.W. Meredith, two soldiers, two Lewis machine guns, and 10,000 rounds of ammo to Western Australia, so confident of a quick success that he sent a Fox Movietone cameraman along to ensure that the Army received the proper credit.
The war commenced on November 2, 1932.  Meredith and his men found a small flock of 50 birds, set up their machine guns, dropped in 97 round drums and commenced firing.  And immediately, the Emu Army used a tactic that had not been planned on—the birds ran out of range. 

The Australian Army does not give up quickly, so Major Meredith and his men advanced on the enemy and resumed fire.  They enlisted the aid of farmers to try to herd the birds into an area where they could be entrapped and slaughtered.  This is the problem with subversive enemy emus:  they cannot be counted on to do their patriotic duty when required and those birds ran everywhere but toward the guns.  By the end of the day, Major Meredith reported that “a number of birds were killed.”  No doubt, this is true.  One is a number.  (So is zero, for that matter).
Two days later, the army was back.  Major Meredith had reconnoitered the area and found a perfect site for an ambush near a dam.  More than a thousand thirsty emus were moving toward the position.  The gunner waited until he could see the oranges of their eyes, opened fire….and managed to slaughter only a dozen of the enemy before the machine gun jammed and the avian army executed a rapid strategic withdrawal.

The enemy was proving to be more difficult than expected.  As one of the soldiers put it:
 "The emus have proved that they are not so stupid as they are usually considered to be. Each mob has its leader, always an enormous black-plumed bird standing fully six-feet high, who keeps watch while his fellows busy themselves with the wheat. At the first suspicious sign, he gives the signal, and dozens of heads stretch up out of the crop. A few birds will take fright, starting a headlong stampede for the scrub, the leader always remaining until his followers have reached safety.”
At this time, Major Meredith decided that, if infantry tactics would not work, it was time to try the cavalry.  Borrowing a farmer’s truck, he had a machine gun mounted on the bed of the truck so that the Australian Army could pursue and destroy the enemy. 

There proved to be a small flaw in this tactic:  Those birds are tall and, when running, they have a nine foot stride across rough terrain and can sprint seemingly forever at 31 mph.  (Given the sort of motivation that only a pursuing machine gun can provide, the emus can hit 35 mph).  And, while they are flightless, their stubby wings are quite efficient for helping them make surprisingly sharp turns while running at top speeds.  Wild cats can run faster than the emus for short distances, but they cannot turn fast enough to catch the elusive emus.

The truck however, had a top speed of 24 mph over flat land—a terrain found almost nowhere in Western Australia—and frankly, the truck’s turning radius sucked.  The soldiers were so desperate to stay in the bouncing swaying truck that no attempt was made to shoot at the enemy.  Finally, in desperation, the truck managed to run over one of the birds.  While this did indeed kill the emu, its body got so tangled up in the truck’s steering that the truck crashed through a farmer’s fence, severely damaging the vehicle.
Even more surprising was the fact that when the soldiers performed a necropsy on the corpse of the enemy slaughtered by the truck, they were astonished to find that it was carrying around several bullets from their machine gun.  It seems that the birds were so tough that only a shot to a vital organ would kill it.  As Major Meredith later described it:

“If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds, it would face any army in the world. They could face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks. They are like Zulus, whom even dum-dum bullets would not stop.”
It was at this point that the Australian House of Representatives began discussing what the newspapers were calling the "Emu War".  When one politician asked whether “a medal was to be struck for those taking part in this war”, a colleague answered that they should rightly go to the emus who “have won every round so far.”
Major Meredith continued the war until December 12, 1932.  While he reported that his force has expended 9,860 rounds, his force had killed only 980 of the enemy (a number that was widely doubted by the farmers).

Over the next twenty years, the farmers repeatedly asked the Australian Army to once again take to the field and help them rid their farms of the enemy emus.  Each time, the Army politely—and very quietly—refused.

 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

White House Games

Without a doubt, being President is the hardest job in the world.  (With the possible exception of being the dean's secretary.)  With such a hard job, it is no wonder that our Presidents have tried to relax as hard as they work.  Sometimes, their hobbies and pets have bordered on the bizarre.

For relaxation, Calvin Coolidge enjoyed playing with his pet pygmy hippopotamus, John Quincy Adams liked to scare guests with his pet alligator, and Theodore Roosevelt kept a whole damn zoo:  packs of dogs, a clowder of cats, a dozen horses, a macaw, a rat, two kangaroos, an owl, several roosters, five snakes, a hyena, a coyote, a raccoon, a lion, a
zebra, a flying squirrel, five bears, and enough snakes to frighten Indiana Jones several times over.  Oh, yeah!...And a badger.  (When T.R. left office, incoming President Taft said, "Badgers?  Badgers!  We don't need no stinkin' badgers!")

Pets have not been the only presidential diversions.  Thomas Jefferson kept a skeleton of a mammoth in the White House and amused himself by trying to piece it back together.  Zachary Taylor was proud of being able to spit tobacco with deadly accuracy and Chester Arthur had a monster rummage sale of furniture and knickknacks left by his predecessors that netted him an impressive $8,000.  None of the stuff he sold was "his", but everybody has to have a hobby, right?.

Many of our presidents played sports when they were young, and continued to do so once in the Oval Office .  Nixon played baseball in college, and followed the game closely the rest of his life.  After he lost the California gubernatorial election in 1962, he was offered the job of Major League Baseball Commissioner.  I wonder how history would have been different if he had accepted the job.

Dwight Eisenhower was a star player in both baseball and football.  His sports career was cut short when West Point played the Carlisle Indians in 1913 and Ike unwisely cut in the way of their star player on his way to a touchdown.  Future Olympian superstar Jim Thorpe broke Ike's leg so badly that the future president had to switch to golf as a sport.

This is just a blog, so we don't have the space to list all the sports that Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed while president.  The White House had a shooting range, a tennis court, and a boxing ring, but the sport that might surprise you is "stilting".  You knowwalking on tall wooden stilts.  Evidently, it was something the whole family enjoyed. 

Today, there are a lot of sport facilities at the White House, including a jogging track, a pool, a tennis court that doubles as a basketball court, a pool table, a putting green, and an exercise room.  Less well known is that the White House also has a bowling alley...or two...or several.

Harry Truman was a part-time bowler, and in 1947, added a two-lane bowling alley on the ground floor of the West Wing.  It there stayed until Eisenhower had the alley moved to the Old Executive Office Building across the street, so space in the West Wing could be used to move in one of those new-fangled mimeograph machines.  Today, that space is used for the Situation Room, where the long lanes have been replaced with long conference tables and the walls are covered with monitors.  This is the room where President Obama watched the strike on the bin Laden compound.

The newer alley is still across the street, and while not exactly open to the public, it has been used by thousands of bowlers over the years.  Named the Harry Truman Bowling Alley, it was used frequently by President Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson.  President Nixon, definitely the most avid presidential bowler in history, used it frequently until he built the other White House Bowling Alley. 

Yes, another bowling alley:  This one is a single lane built in the White House basement under the North Portico, where President Nixon could practice his game without leaving the White House.  How good was Nixon?  Supposedly, he once bowled back-to-back 300 games and (depending on who you believe) had an average of either 165 or 232.  But, like many other things about Nixon, it bears a little fact checking.  If you look at the photo to the right, you can clearly see that Nixon has fouled by crossing the line, though I'll bet money that the Secret Service didn't call him on it.

This lane is still there, but reportedly in rather sad shape.  No president wants to spend public money on such a self-serving project, though a few years ago, several bowling organizations volunteered to remodel the lane.  The picture below is an artist's attempt to show what it could look like.

 
Actually, there is also a third presidential bowling alley.  This is a double set of lanes that President Eisenhower had installed in the Hickory Lodge at Camp David.  Supposedly, this is the set of lanes most used by every president since Nixon.  When Premier Khrushchev came to America in 1959, he asked to see the lanes and seemed fascinated to see the automatic pin setting machines.  Evidently, he was expecting serfs.

This is where President Clinton taught Secretary of State Madelaine Albright how to bowl, where Chelsea Clinton had her Sweet Sixteen birthday party, and  where President Obama celebrated his 48th birthday.  According to the White House press release, he scored a 144.  If true, he had obviously been practicing, since he was observed in April, 2008, bowling a game in Pennsylvania while campaigning for reelection:  That day, he had bowled a 37.

Perhaps this is why he once promised, that if reelected, he would rip out the Presidential bowling alley and replace it with a full-sized indoor basketball court.  So far, this is just another unfulfilled campaign promise.  In politics, as in bowling, split happens.